The Omicron Variant Appears Less Likely to Cause Severe COVID-19 Illness Than Delta

Preliminary data suggest that people with the omicron variant of the coronavirus are between 50% and 70% less likely to need hospitalization than those with the delta strain, Britain’s public health agency said Thursday.

The U.K. Health Security Agency findings add to emerging evidence that omicron produces milder illness than other variants—but also spreads faster and better evades vaccines.

The agency said that based on cases in the U.K., an individual with omicron is estimated to be between 31% and 45% less likely to attend a hospital emergency department compared to one with delta, “and 50 to 70% less likely to be admitted to hospital.”
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It cautioned that the analysis is “preliminary and highly uncertain” because of the small number of omicron patients in hospitals and the fact that most were in younger age groups. As of Dec. 20, 132 people had been admitted to U.K. hospitals with confirmed omicron, of whom 14—aged between 52 and 96—died.

Scientists advise that severity reductions must be considered in light of the fact that microns spread faster than delta, and are more likely to escape vaccines.

The agency’s research said the protection a booster shot of vaccine gives against symptomatic omicron infection appears to wane after about 10 weeks, though protection against hospitalization and severe disease is likely to hold up for longer.

UKHSA chief executive Jenny Harries said the analysis “shows an encouraging early signal that people who contract the omicron variant may be at a relatively lower risk of hospitalization than those who contract other variants.”

But she added that “cases are currently very high in the U.K., and even a relatively low proportion requiring hospitalization could result in a significant number of people becoming seriously ill.”

U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the emerging information about omicron was “encouraging news,” But he said it was “not very clear yet … by how much that risk is reduced” compared to delta.

Two studies from Imperial College London, and Scottish researchers have prompted the analysis. These two studies found that patients with omicron had between 20 and 68% fewer chances of needing hospital treatment than those who had delta.

South Africa is where this variant was discovered for the first time. Data also suggests that omicron may be less severe there.

Even if early research is correct, this new variant can still cause serious health issues due to the high number of infected people. The British health agency said omicron appeared able to re-infect people more easily than previous variants, with 9.5% of omicron cases found in people who had already had COVID-19—a figure it said was likely an underestimate.

The UK is a country where the omicron dominates and COVID-19 has seen a surge of more than 50% within a week.

Britain had 119,789 COVID-19-confirmed cases in its laboratory on Thursday. It was the largest number of such cases since the outbreak and is now at the top of the list for the first time.

Britain’s Office for National Statistics estimated that about 1 in 45 people in private households in England—1.2 million individuals—had COVID-19 in the week to Dec. 16, the highest level seen in the pandemic.

Britain’s Conservative government this month reinstated rules requiring face masks in shops and ordered people to show proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test before entering nightclubs and other crowded venues in an attempt to slow omicron’s spread.

On Thursday, the government stated that it will not place any additional restrictions prior to Christmas but may do so shortly thereafter.

Officials advised people to have regular screenings and reduce their socializing. Many Britons have followed that advice and left entertainment and hospitality companies reeling in what should have been their busiest period of the year.

While the government offers loans and grants to assist bars, restaurants and theatres in need, it’s not enough to save them all.

In England, the U.K. government sets rules. Other parts of the U.K.—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—have set slightly tighter restrictions, including the closure of nightclubs.

According to data, the government believes vaccine boosters can provide an effective bulwark against the omicron. It has also set the goal of giving everyone aged 18 or over a third shot by December.


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